Overall Rating Gold
Overall Score 71.29
Liaison Holly Andersen
Submission Date March 30, 2022

STARS v2.2

Bennington College
PRE-2: Points of Distinction

Status Score Responsible Party
Complete N/A Holly Andersen
Project Manager
Planning Office
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Name of the institution’s featured sustainability program, initiative, or accomplishment:
NSF Awards Bennington College Grant to Expand Study of PFOA

A brief description of the institution’s featured program, initiative, or accomplishment:

Bennington College

NSF Awards Bennington College Grant to Expand Study of PFOA
JUNE 13, 2017
Bennington College Faculty Members David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder have been awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to deepen and expand the College’s response to PFOA contamination in New York and Vermont.

Tim drilling siteNSF-image2NSF-image3
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“Support from the NSF will allow Bennington College to do what we do best: confront the big problems of our time and put students and faculty to work crafting new insights and new solutions in real time,” said David Bond, the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College.

PFOA was discovered last year in alarming concentrations in the groundwater of New York and Vermont. Once used in plastics manufacturing across the region, PFOA is now coming under increasing scrutiny as a widespread environmental toxin. Through new courses, new collaborations, and new research, this NSF-funded project—“Understanding PFOA”—will bring science education at Bennington College into conversation with unfolding local and national concerns about PFOA.

“This grant will allow us to more effectively apply the Bennington philosophy of learning by doing. Rather than just reading case studies of groundwater contamination incidents, our students will be actively investigating a local problem,” said Geology Faculty Member Tim Schroeder. “Students will learn about the science of PFOA contamination and, by visiting impacted communities, also learn why science matters.”

This project will equip a handful of science classes in chemistry, geology, and environmental studies at Bennington College to produce independent data on PFOA contamination.

“We are very excited to be able to follow up on strategies for involving students in the next phase of community involvement with the PFOA contamination in our area,” said Chemistry Faculty Member Janet Foley. “We hope to develop multiple mechanisms for students to engage in this issue, such as incorporating PFOA modules in our science classes, training students in GIS to develop visual mapping of data, and proteomic studies with yeast to explore the effects of PFOA from a molecular point of view. This issue is an opportunity for students to see that by integrating knowledge with real-life problems, they can make real changes in the world.”

Bond, Foley, and Schroeder are joined on the grant by Associate Professor of Chemistry Laura MacManus-Spencer of Union College.

“This project will provide a crucial home base for the growing network of research scientists and science educators in our region concerned about PFOA,” said MacManus-Spencer. “From university laboratories to high school classrooms, this project will help organize and apply the scientific resources of our region to the urgent questions being raised about PFOA by local residents.”

This project also teams up with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (VT DEC) to share research projects and findings on PFOA across state borders.

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In many ways, PFOA represents a new kind of environmental problem. Once a key ingredient in the manufacture of high-performance plastics like Teflon, PFOA is now coming into focus as a subtle environmental toxin since low-level exposure has been correlated to a number of adverse health effects. PFOA resists natural degradation, is chemically stable in water for nearly a century, is highly mobile once released into the environment, and is readily absorbed by the body when consumed, where it is unsafely housed for 3–5 years.

Although PFOA was voluntarily phased out of manufacturing in the US in 2015, a tremendous amount remains in the environment. The Environmental Working Group estimates that over 5 million Americans currently rely on drinking water with harmful levels of PFOA. As the EPA summarizes, “the toxicity, mobility, and bioaccumulation” of PFOA poses difficult questions for safeguarding human health in areas where it has been released into the environment.

“Bridging local questions about PFOA contamination with the analytic resources and manpower of the science classroom, this project showcases the civic value of science in times of new environmental challenges and toxic uncertainties” Bond said. “It promises a new educational model for colleges and universities to respond to nearby environmental problems.”

This current grant builds on a previous RAPID NSF grant Bennington College received in March of 2016. As PFOA was discovered in Hoosick Falls, NY in 2015 and in Bennington, VT in 2016, Bennington College designed and offered a new course on the chemical properties, environmental pathways, and policy concerns surrounding PFOA. Alongside Bennington students, this class was opened to high school teachers, nurses, local journalists, and community members from Hoosick Falls and Bennington. This class was offered as a primer on PFOA that could equip students and citizens alike to better navigate the very complicated science of PFOA, to produce data more attuned to local concerns, and to demand better protections for water resources moving forward. This additional NSF support will enable Bennington to continue offering this course once a year for three years.

In the course, students also learned how to produce and interpret original data on PFOA contamination. Taking public concerns around PFOA as analytic prompts, students and faculty designed research projects that could produce independent data to answer community questions. For example, residents asked if there might be any PFOA in local maple syrup. After tapping two trees within one mile of a former plastics plant, laboratory analysis found low levels of PFOA in the maple sap (about 8 ppt). Other residents asked if there might be any residual PFOA in the water pipes of their home, which are located after the carbon filtration system and thus might be a continued source of PFOA exposure. Laboratory analysis found no detectable PFOA in water sampled from the kitchen faucet in homes in Hoosick Falls and Bennington with private wells that have high levels of PFOA.

Many local residents also expressed concern about highly divergent readings among immediate neighbors—the well of one house has alarming levels of PFOA while the well of the house next door does not have detectable levels. Monitoring two neighborhoods with divergent readings over the course of one year has not revealed a coherent pattern: analysis has indicated significant fluctuation in one neighborhood and relative stability in another. Continued NSF support will enable Bennington College to continue monitoring these neighborhoods as well as continue using the scientific resources of the college to help answer new community concerns.

Bennington College’s pioneering response to PFOA contamination has garnered national attention. In addition to local and national media coverage of the project, Bond, Foley, and Schroeder have given invited presentations on their work engaging PFOA to environmental scientists and faculty at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Northeastern University, and Williams College, as well as to environmental policymakers and elected officials in Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. They’ve also given numerous presentations to residents and local leaders in Hoosick Falls, NY and Bennington, VT. In May 2017, Bennington College also hosted a conference of 150 regional high school students and teachers to learn more about engaging PFOA in an AP science classroom.

About Bennington College and the Center for the Advancement of Public Action

Bennington College is a small liberal arts college in southern Vermont with a long tradition of engaging the humanities in the contemporary world. The Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College is furthering the educational philosophy and pedagogy of the College by connecting classroom learning to hands-on engagements with a wide range of current issues like international conflict and leadership, art in the public realm, incarceration in America, and, increasingly, our region’s food, energy, and water systems. Founded in 2011, CAPA teaches the essential capacities needed to develop an educated and emboldened citizenry. Drawing together the deep artistic and analytic resources of Bennington College and collaborating with existing public and private organizations, CAPA leverages the classroom as a new kind of laboratory for creative problem solving and innovation.

Which of the following impact areas does the featured program, initiative, or accomplishment most closely relate to?:

Website URL where more information about the accomplishment may be found:
STARS credit in which the featured program, initiative, or accomplishment is reported (if applicable):
AC-9 Research and Scholarship

A photograph or document associated with the featured program, initiative, or accomplishment:
Name of a second highlighted sustainability program/initiative/accomplishment:
Bennington College- U.S. Building of the Week

A brief description of the second program/initiative/accomplishment:

With some of its more than sixty buildings designed by Pietro Belluschi, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Tod Wlliams Billie Tsien Architects, and others, Bennington College has a strong tradition of modern architecture. The latest campus project renovates one of the college's oldest buildings, giving it contemporary expression inside and out. Christoff:Finio Architecture answered a few questions about Bennington Commons.

Project: Bennington Commons, 2019
Location: Bennington, Vermont, USA
Client: Bennington College
Architect: Christoff:Finio Architecture
Design Principals: Taryn Christoff, Martin Finio
Project Manager: Caleb Linville, Dan Hemmendinger
Project Team: Kathy Kao, Kat Ballo, Meredith Strickland, Connie Chung, Anne Herndon
Associate Architect: Centerline Architects
Structural Engineer: Hage Engineering
MEP/FP Engineer: LN Consulting
Landscape Architect: Reed Hilderbrand
Lighting Designer: One Lux Studio
Contractor: PC Construction
AV/ Acoustics: Acoustic Distinctions
Specifications: Construction Specifications, Inc.
Cost Estimating: Ellana, Inc.
Foodservice Consultant: Corsi Associates

What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
It was a competition, and we were invited very late into the process. The college was assembling a list of architects for the Commons. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects did a project some time ago with the college, and they recommended us. We were added in with one or two weeks until the deadline. We had very little knowledge and went on-site quickly to formulate an approach. Our presentation meeting didn’t seem to go well, but unexpectedly we got a call on our way back telling us we had won the project.

What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?
The main idea is a conversation between old and new. Throughout the project, we were trying to be authentic architects of our own time and let the history of the building exist. We intended to transform a building that was entirely impenetrable into one that is as open and accessible as possible. In the design presentation, the first image we showed was a pair of scissors opening the building, showing the trees on the other side.

How does the design respond to the unique qualities of the site?
Bennington College’s Commons building is the original centerpiece of its 1932 Beaux-Arts campus plan. This 45,000 square-foot renovation is the first substantial upgrade to the building. The project reinforces Commons’ unique character and history while envisioning how it can continue to serve the college for decades to come.

How did the project change between the initial design stage and the completion of the building?
We started by doing a comprehensive look at the campus, conducting a masterplan to understand how the different buildings were used and when. Bennington Commons was the core of this masterplan, and we decided to focus our efforts there. The design is the result of the broader research we did about the site.

Was the project influenced by any trends in energy-conservation, construction, or design?
The campus already had some sustainability goals brought in by federal policy. They had a biomass energy plant on campus, and we tapped into that system.

Prior to the renovation there had been no cooling capacity in the building. The renovation introduced a drastically improved building envelope allowing for the use of two large energy recovery ventilators configured for geo-thermal transition, and currently running off of the campus’s biomass steam plant. Heat pumps on a single water loop allow energy to be shared throughout the building, and gender-neutral washrooms use low-flow toilets.

Email interview conducted by John Hill.

Which impact areas does the second program/initiative/accomplishment most closely relate to?:
Coordination & Planning

Website URL where more information about the second program/initiative/accomplishment may be found:
STARS credit in which the second program/initiative/accomplishment is reported (if applicable):
OP-3 Building Design and Construction

A photograph or document associated with the second program/initiative/accomplishment:
Name of a third highlighted program/initiative/accomplishment:
Bennington College-- Sustainability Curriculum

A brief description of the third program/initiative/accomplishment:

Bennington College has had a long history of robust sustainability studies tied to every aspect of the Science Office. Each first year student at Bennington College has to take courses to understand campus and Bennington principles in general. In this fiscal year, first year forum courses-- in addition to our regular curriculum--- covered utilities usage on campus, sustainability on campus, and how to fight climate change from your dorm room.

Which impact areas does the third program/initiative/accomplishment most closely relate to?:
Campus Engagement

Website URL where more information about the third program/initiative/accomplishment may be found:
STARS credit in which the third program/initiative/accomplishment is reported (if applicable):
AC 1-- Academic Courses

A photograph or document associated with the third program/initiative/accomplishment:

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